Say no to bird courses; say yes to academic idealism

“You study hard now, get good average, get into medical school and become a doctor. You don’t make the grades — secretary!”

As I reiterated these words from my professor to my counsellor, she was aghast at the harshness and direct nature of his supposedly motivational speech.

“And what do you think about this?” she asked.

I stared at her for a second, not understanding her question. “Um,” I paused. “I … think he’s right?”

Don’t you find it ironic that, while we were brought up in an educational system that relies on grades as the main criteria for evaluating whether or not we are “good” students, the idea that “grades are not representative of who you are as an individual” just never seems to die?

When I first came to U of T, my grades, as predicted, dropped about 15 per cent from the mid-to-high 90s that I had consistently held in high school. I remember feeling as if my life had spun out of control, because suddenly, the one thing I knew how to do and do well — studying and getting good grades —had turned its back on me. Without the stellar grades that had often defined me as being “smart,” I felt that I had lost a big chunk of myself. My self-esteem plummeted, and I began to listen religiously to the voice telling me that grades do not define me as a person.

It didn’t make me feel any better. The reality was — and still is — that without a competitive GPA, you would have a hard time getting into any professional or graduate school after undergrad. Similarly, while companies generally care less about your GPA, it is nevertheless a weighty component of any job application, since in the absence of job experience, GPA becomes a strong indicator of your abilities.

With marks so heavily emphasized, it’s not surprising that students tend to “play it safe” by choosing easy courses that guarantee a high mark. Apparently, for the small price of boredom that accompanies these so-called “bird courses” that you probably don’t give a hoot about, your chances of obtaining a slightly more promising future than “secretary” are somehow significantly improved. I mean, let’s face it. It’s not like anybody came to U of T looking for a small, personable and cozy environment. With course averages that must be maintained annually through bell curves and the number of As given for an assignment typically fixed by a quota, being near the top academically becomes almost a matter of life and death. It’s not about choice, but about waking up to reality. As my friend often tries to remind me, “You can’t fight the system; you have to work it.”

But wait a minute — why does this sound so wrong? Aren’t we supposed to be benefiting in some way from investing so much in our education? Aren’t we here to learn what we are interested in, so that, equipped with the necessary knowledge, we can then be sent out into the world to make a difference? You know, be a global citizen, fight corruption and injustice, cure cancer … leave a legacy? While it’s sometimes difficult to maintain such optimism, I, for one, still stand firm for academic idealism: the idea that our course and program choices should not depend on the likelihood of getting a high GPA, that what matter most are curiosity, courage, perseverance, and how we foster our own personal and professional development.

In large institutions like U of T, it’s not easy to be recognized for your efforts, because if you look around — in libraries, in lectures, at office hours — everyone‘s putting in a lot of effort. What I had failed to realize initially was that rather than seeing this as competition (ways in which you are not “good enough”), it’s imperative to see it as high expectations. In that sense, it is your responsibility to raise the bar of your own achievements so that, subsequently, the demands and expectations of this particular academic environment will be met with glory.

For this reason, I encourage you to take control of your education. I’m not feeding you the old cliché, “Take courses because you are interested in them.” Rather, I’m telling you to take courses because you are serious about learning the material, and because you are serious about doing well in them. Don’t make excuses or blame the school when you don’t do well: go to office hours, hunt down your profs no matter how elusive their presence might seem, and put your all into the course. Believe me, not too long ago, I used to be one of those students who did nothing but complain whenever I got a bad mark. The lowest point of my academic career came recently, when in two writing courses I’m currently taking, I was harshly criticized for my writing abilities (and unfortunately I have the marks to prove this). My writing skills, like my marks back in high school, had so far consistently defined me as a person. It was then I realized that what I was really lacking was humility. Unless you fully accept responsibility for how well you do in a course (which hardly ever happens if you consider it a “bird course”), you’ll never be serious enough to tackle every obstacle in your learning, and succeed.

I am still working hard in the two writing courses, and I’m proud to say that I’m glad I took them. All the useful knowledge and skills I’m gaining, I’ve decided, are worth the stress, the hard work, and the occasional harsh criticism. In that sense, I’ve realized that my grades really don’t represent who I am as an individual. GPA is just a number, but the personal challenges I will conquer will allow me to go further than where my GPA alone would ever take me.

– Lucy